28.10.20

JUST BACKDATED REACHES 1,000,000

 

“I could live a million,” sang R.E.M. on one of their earliest tracks, though few had a clue what Michael Stipe was banging on about. Well, sometime last night someone somewhere in the world became the 1,000,000th person to read a post on Just Backdated, and I’ve decided to bang on about it. Materially, having 1,000,000 hits at last won’t affect me in the slightest as Just Backdated is a hobby and not monetised in any way, but psychologically it vindicates my decision, prompted by my daughter, to launch this blog at the end of 2013 and continue with it now for almost eight years, just for the fun of it. 
    Few organisations or individuals pay me to write about music these days but, then again, I’ve always thought that writing about music wasn’t really a job in the ‘work’ sense anyway. It’s not like making or building or repairing or selling things, or even creating music in the first place. I was just lucky that 50 years ago I was able to slip into a situation where the publishers of Melody Maker paid me to listen to music and interview musicians, then set down my thoughts on paper, which was something I liked doing, so in a way it wasn't that different from being a painter or musician or professional sportsman or woman, or anyone else who’s been lucky enough to get paid for doing what they want to do. 
    I was able to enable those seven years on MM into a few other jobs that were more like work in the traditional sense, especially the 33 years as editor at Omnibus Press, but the truth of the matter is that it all really boils down to MM, as can be seen from the posts on Just Backdated. Well over half of them relate back to that period of my life and the statistics reveal that those who visit the blog prefer to read my reminiscences or reports from that era than whatever I write about newer music. 
    Frank Zappa said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and defined rock journalism as ‘people who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.’ Of course, he was trying to be contentious so that some writer who didn’t much like him might rise to the bait and I agreed with him to a certain extent but carried on happily doing what I did anyway. As a matter of fact, Frank almost always got good press so I could understand his attitude better if it came from an act disliked by critics, like Queen or Rush or Neil Diamond.  
    It's not as if I have a million readers, of course. The blog tells me I have 16 ‘followers’ which is a bit disappointing but whoever you are thanks. What obviously happens is that people go back again and again to read stuff. I should add that the total isn’t skewed by my own visits, which aren’t registered, so when I go onto the blog to edit my posts slightly this doesn’t count as a hit. When I first danced about architecture – thanks Frank – Melody Maker was increasing its circulation to around 200,000 copies a week, a figure that never ceases to astound me in the light of the tragic demise of the UK’s weekly music press, so a million hits in eight years is tiny in the grand scheme of things. 
    Now for some other statistics. This is the 828th post on Just Backdated, so that averages out at 1,207 hits per post but as I’ve noted before that statistic is flawed because posts about The Who and, to a lesser extent, Led Zeppelin, especially those linked on their own fan sites or FB pages, usually outnumber almost other posts by a tenfold margin. But just for the record here’s my top 20:

1) The Who Live At Fillmore East CD review – 47.7k hits
2) John, Paul & Keith Moon at Santa Monica – 14k
3) Jimmy Page’s residences – 12.1k
4) Jimmy Page meeting Robert Plant – 6.59k
5) Mandy Moon book treatment – 6.07k
6) Palazzo Dario, Kit Lambert’s Venice Palace – 5.59k
7) News of Who UK tour (2014) – 5.17k
8) Launching Dear Boy – 4.15k
9) Keith Moon & The Pythons – 4.1k
10) The Who, My Hidden Gems CD – 3.73k
11) The Who in Hyde Park, 2015 – 3.59k
12) John Entwistle Tribute – 3.22k
13) Keith Moon’s residences – 3.01k
14) The Ox (John Entwistle) book review – 2.91k
15) The North of England Beer Drinking Contest – 2.85k
16) Pretend You’re In A War (Who) book review 2.83k
17) ‘Underture’, Keith’s Great Triumph – 2.82k 
18) Deep Purple in Jakarta – 2.77k
19) Pete Townshend Interview (1974) – 2.75k
20) The Who at Stafford in 1975 – 2.7k

    Quite why the number one post, my review of The Who’s live CD from their show at the Fillmore East in April 1968, has received well over three times more hits than the post at number two is inexplicable really. I know it was shared on The Who’s official site but so have many other Who related posts. Hopefully, it’s a reflection of what a fine recording it is. If it’s sold as many copies as I’ve had hits, Pete’n’Rog will be well pleased. 
    The odd one out in the list, of course, is The North of England Beer Drinking Contest, my account of an event that several friends and I attended in Hull in 1968. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with music and quite why it has attracted as many hits as it has is a mystery. I was delighted when a message was left for me by the winner’s grandson two years after it was originally posted (in 2016). “Lionel Tutt was my grandad!” he wrote. “My mother told me this story as a child.” (Anyone interested can read the post here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-north-of-england-beer-drinking.html) 
    Aside from The Who and Led Zeppelin, other acts that attracted more than 2,000 hits include Abba, The Beach Boys, Jeff Beck, David Cassidy, Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix, Little Feat and Slade, with David Bowie almost there. Oddly, posts about The Beatles, collectively or individually, don’t seem that popular. I guess everyone’s read enough about them elsewhere. Same with Bruce Springsteen whose new album, Letter To You, I'll be reviewing here soon. 
    As to where all my hits come from, the US tops the league with 401k followed by the UK (221k), Russia (71.6k), Canada (30k) and Germany (26.3k). Weirdly, I have had 8.27k hits from Turkmenistan, which I think might be suspect, and 191k from ‘other regions’. 
    Anyway, thanks once again to all who visit Just Backdated and I’ll try to keep it up for as long as I can. 


23.10.20

WILD THING – The Short, Spellbinding Life Of Jimi Hendrix by Philip Norman


The first book about Jimi Hendrix I read was written by my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch and published in 1972, long before rock books became a spin-off industry to records and concerts. It was the first ever Hendrix book and something of a coup for Chris. I remember him bringing it into the office where we passed it around, admiring not just the book but Chris’ initiative in writing it and getting it published. It was a fairly slim volume, illustrated throughout, and benefitted from Chris having interviewed and seen Jimi perform many times. Most subsequent biographers – and there have been many – had no such personal connections.
The most recent is Wild Thing by Philip Norman but I don’t hold this against him for many of the best rock books have been written by authors without social or professional connections to their subject. Norman has been writing about music for most of his life and is eminently qualified to write about Hendrix or anyone else for that matter. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Hendrix’s death, Wild Thing this week became the eleventh Hendrix book I‘ve read, and that includes five I commissioned as editor at Omnibus Press, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky by David Henderson, whose UK rights I bought for Omnibus from its US publishers, and Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic, a virtuoso study of Jimi’s music that goes easy on a private life that long ago became public. 
Wild Thing observes no such scruples. Indeed, Jimi’s boundless promiscuity is a running theme as mind-blowing as the music he made, a Satyricon-like odyssey of endless shagging that puts even Led Zeppelin to shame. There can be no question that women adored Jimi Hendrix – and he them. In the end, of course, he was brought down by one who showed extreme disregard for his welfare, or so the evidence indicates. 
All of which makes it a breezy read, skipping lightly but entertainingly through Hendrix's childhood and lean years until our hero reaches London in the autumn of 1966 and his life explodes. The next four years are covered meticulously to say the least, with plenty of pages given over to the mystery surrounding Jimi’s death in a downmarket private lodge in London’s Notting Hill on September 18, 1970. That conundrum will forever remain largely unresolved but this book investigates it forensically, determinedly putting to the sword conspiracy theories suggesting Jimi was murdered by persons who might have had reason to benefit from his passing.
The leading contender in the list of suspects is the nefarious Mike Jeffrey, Jimi’s co-manager whose Club A-Go-Go in Newcastle was the launch-pad for The Animals whom he managed prior to Hendrix, a joint partnership with their industrious and far more upright bass player Chas Chandler. Jeffrey’s resemblance to characters in the great Tyneside-based gangster movie Get Carter is not lost on Norman but while his stewardship of Hendrix was certainly unprincipled, his only accuser is a roadie who made the allegation when he had a book to sell. Another contender, believe it or not, is a branch of the American secret service. 
A more likely culprit, albeit a far more benign one, is the infamous Monika Danneman who shared Hendrix’s bed on the night before he died. Interviewed many times in the years between 1970 and her death by suicide in 1996, she changed her story over and over again but whatever version you care to believe there seems little doubt that it was her negligence on that fateful morning that robbed Hendrix of his life.
The hours leading up to the calamity, the death itself and its immediate and longer-term aftermath occupy three carefully researched chapters at the end of Wild Thing, and though some of the information was previously published in Tony Brown’s book The Final Days Of Jimi Hendrix*, Norman has gone a step or two further in talking to those involved, which makes this the definitive account of what must, in the end, be regarded simply as a tragic accident, albeit one waiting to happen.  
One person at the scene who wouldn’t talk about it was Eric Burdon who, reports Norman, is ‘working on his own Jimi Hendrix story’. I’ll believe that when I see it, but at least Eric is alive, unlike almost all the dramatis personae in this tale – Hendrix himself, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell from the Experience and co-managers Chandler and Jeffrey – which severely limits Norman’s research sources but at the same time enables him to write without fear of contention. 
        Fortunately, Hendrix’s ne’er-do-well younger brother Leon is still around to be interviewed as are many of the women who came within Jimi’s orbit. These include his principal London-based partner Cathy Etchingham, now a grandmother living in Australia, Jeffrey’s long-suffering PA Trixi Sullivan and model Linda Keith, girlfriend of Keith Richards in 1966, who introduced Hendrix to Chandler and remained his friend throughout his life. All have talked at length to Norman with Etchingham, the most down-to-earth witness, offering convincing evidence of Jimi’s domesticity, warmth and carefree personality. Sullivan, on the other hand, tells us far more about her boss’ shady business affairs than I’ve read elsewhere. 
        In this regard, it’s almost heartbreaking to read how unsympathetic Jeffrey was to his client’s needs. Like ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker with Elvis, he seemed utterly oblivious to Hendrix’s art, viewing him solely as a cash-cow to be kept on a treadmill of gigs that enriched him considerably. Jeffrey’s death in a plane crash in 1973 further muddied the waters with regard to what happened to all that money, another bone of contention in the aftermath of the events of September 1970. In fact, the estate, now estimated to be worth $80 million, is in the hands of Janie Hendrix, the step-daughter of Jimi’s father Al who died in 2002. Jimi didn’t see much of it when he was alive, though like many a musician who lived only to create he didn’t much care so long as he had somewhere to sleep, food on his plate and enough to spend in boutiques that sold the flamboyant clothes, often tailored for girls, that he liked to wear. 
        Few interviewees have a bad word to say about Hendrix. He liked the recreational drugs that were prevalent among the circles in which he mixed but was terrified of needles, which meant heroin wasn’t on the menu. He turned nasty only when he drank whisky and this occasionally affected his ability to play well. He had a hippie outlook on life, often speaking ambiguously in airy-fairy ways, loved science fiction and the mothers of his friends invariably recognised a waif that needed mothering. He was shy in company, eternally unsure about his singing voice and virtually ego free. 
        Wild Thing didn’t tell me a great deal I didn’t already know about the life and death of Jimi Hendrix but a few small details fascinated me. I didn’t know he liked to watch Coronation Street and could ice skate, nor that he had a fling with Bridget Bardot, and I’m kicking myself that I wasn’t at the Troutbeck Hotel in Ilkley on March 12, 1967 – less than 10 miles from Skipton where I lived at the time – when an Experience gig was brought to a premature conclusion by Police Sergeant Thomas Chapman on account of overcrowding. I’m dubious about Jimi earning ‘$14,000 a minute’ for a gig at the Garden in New York – which would surely make the cost of tickets prohibitive – and Chas Chandler certainly wasn’t ‘riding high with his new discovery Slade’ in the summer of 1970, which was 12 months before their first hit. 
        More importantly, Norman is rightly effusive about the guitar skills that brought Eric Clapton and other top-flight British players to their knees in awe, so much so that for the past 48 hours I’ve listened to nothing but Hendrix, irrefutable testimony to the book’s merits. Furthermore, Norman traces the climactic gathering storm surrounding Jimi in a way that is genuinely page-turning. OK, we know what’s going to happen and there’s much about the sequence of events in this telling that makes the tragedy almost inevitable but at the same time there are so many ‘if onlys’ that, even now, 50 years later, you can’t help but shake your head in dismay at the downright agony of it all.  
        Finally, the cover of the hardback edition that I read is simply beautiful, an understated design featuring a photograph of Jimi’s face by David Magnus that is tinted orange and green with minimal titling. What a change from book covers that scream too loud but offer too little. Wild Thing doesn’t scream at all but offers a lot. 

 
* Published by Omnibus Press in 1997, I commissioned and edited this book.

4.10.20

QUEEN AND I: A DOOMED ROMANCE

Regular visitors to Just Backdated will perhaps have noted that certain big rock acts are conspicuous by their absence. Among them is Queen, who’ve been staring at me reproachfully for the past two weeks from the front cover of the latest Mojo magazine that sits on the coffee table in our front room. It’s my old pal Mick Rock’s famous picture of their four heads in a diamond configuration, the opening sequence of the video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. They don’t look that happy, as they probably weren’t after Mick asked for an outrageous sum of money when they tried to buy the copyright of this shot from him several years ago.                           I was never a Queen fan. Furthermore, I had a series of encounters with them or their support staff between 1974 and 1986 that did not go well, and the appearance this week on Rock’s Back Pages of an uncomplimentary Melody Maker review of them I wrote in 1975, coupled with that Mojo cover, has prompted me to set down for posterity the details of the ill-fated relationship between Queen and I.                                    Queen emerged in the UK while I was working as Melody Maker’s man in America so I wasn’t around to see them in their infancy. Indeed, my first exposure to them was in New York when they supported – yes, supported – Mott The Hoople at the Uris Theatre on Broadway, for a run of shows in May of 1974.                                                                                It was an occasion that brought out all of New York’s glammed up boys and girls, loads of fun and glitter everywhere, and Queen dressed for it – their US debut – in garments not unlike those worn by Olympic ice skaters on the rink, all shiny satin with pleats and billowing sleeves. This was how they habitually dressed at that time, very ostentatious, as was their music, which struck me as a premeditated blend of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie with a sprinkling of Yes on the vocal harmonies, efficiently delivered certainly but very calculated and somehow bereft of that magical ingredient that conveys to an audience an act’s sense of spiritual purpose, that they really believe in what they are doing. In contrast, Mott turned in their usual high-spirited if disorderly set and seemed to me to have ten times more integrity about them. 

I next saw Queen at the Avery Fisher Hall in NY on 1 March, 1975, and I am indebted to Rock’s Back Pages for republishing on line this week my MM review of that show. Here it is, word for word: “As an ardent supporter of British rock amid a race of people weaned on hamburgers and Coca Cola, it grieves me to report how disappointed I was with Queen’s important ‘prestige’ performance at the Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday evening. I'd read good things about the band and expected much – but I came away with a sour taste.                                                            “It was perhaps unfortunate that Queen were the first heavy metal act I witnessed after attending three performances by Led Zeppelin in recent weeks.                                                                                             “Queen's music, to me, was tedious, and their on-stage presence (an essential quality if you choose to run the heavy-rock-with-glitter-overtones race) was an almost laughably bizarre mish-mash of every other more successful band of their genre.                                                    “Freddie Mercury came over as a pompous, arrogant duplication of all those who have gone before; his stage movements seemed forced and stereotyped instead of smooth and flowing with the rhythms his band were creating.                                                                                             “Brian May is a competent, but far from spectacular guitar player. His long solo relied entirely on the tape loop of an echo chamber which, I suspected, had the sustain control switched up to the fullest level.                 “I had no complaint with the rhythm section and the drummer, in fact, came to the rescue with some nifty infills time and time again. His two floor tom-toms appeared to be covered with some kind of white powder, so that every time he pounded away to his right, an interesting effect was created.                                                                                      “Queen’s lighting was excellent, and their one-hour fifteen minute show concluded on the usual smoke filled note. This, in itself, was rather curious: most bands who utilise this over-used ploy use dry ice which, as it is heavier than air, sinks to the ground and rarely rises above the musicians’ knees. Queen appeared to be using steam which has the opposite effect and floats everywhere. On this occasion the clouds of steam completely blocked out the view of the group — and the first few rows of the audience.                                                                                  “Lastly, it is only fair to point out that my view of the concert appeared to be that of the minority and the majority went home satisfied.”                                                                                                    Within a week both the New York Times and Rolling Stone published similarly unflattering reviews. 

The next time I saw Queen was at the Beacon Theatre on New York’s West Side in February 1976. I was sat in the stalls and when some idiot in the circle lobbed a firecracker over the balcony that missed my head by inches and landed at my feet, I and several others had to hastily vacate our seats midway through their performance. It was one of many fireworks chucked during the show.                                                                 While I realise it wasn’t Queen’s fault that I narrowly escaped being blinded, it didn’t endear me to them or their fans. It left a nasty taste in my mouth that somehow never went away. For this reason I didn’t review that show beyond a cursory mention in my New York news column that drew attention to the behaviour of their fans.                                                   As you can probably guess, by now I had detected what I felt was an element of cynicism surrounding Queen, as if their modus operandi had been plotted in a business meeting where all the required ingredients for success were debated and thereafter skilfully blended through earnest planning and research. It was a view shared by many of my fellow critics in America, and probably in the UK too.                                                          Perhaps sensing that Melody Maker’s NY correspondent wasn’t in their camp, the next time they appeared in NY – at Madison Square Garden no less, in February 1977 – they invited a sympathetic London-based MM writer along for their ride, no doubt to ensure positive coverage. I was on the cusp of leaving MM then anyway, and wasn’t even offered tickets to the show. I couldn’t care less. 

Thereafter my encounters with Queen did not involve the group’s music or performances and, as such, it’s quite likely the boys in the band were unaware of them. In early 1986 Omnibus Press, of which I was then editor, published a book entitled Queen: A Visual Documentary by Ken Dean (a pseudonym). The book’s cover featured the same photograph that appears on this month’s Mojo and I have no doubt Mick Rock long ago banked his check.                                                                                     No sooner had our book hit the shops than Queen’s lawyers wrote me an indignant letter. They claimed it was a blatant breach of their rights and demanded it be removed from sale, all copies destroyed and all revenues forwarded to them, pronto, plus damages to be negotiated and legal costs, under pain of god knows what.                                                   It was, of course, horseshit. Within certain parameters, the law permits anyone to publish a book about anyone else so long as you do not libel them or breach their copyright. The actual book, one in a series of similar books that didn’t trouble anyone else, was a straightforward chronology of their career, just dates, events, quotes and lots of pictures, without comment, and therefore did not libel them. The text was commissioned by me and paid for by Omnibus Press, which therefore owned the copyright, and all the photographs were cleared with the various agencies or individual photographers that owned the rights to them. Any first year law student would have known Queen’s lawyers were bullshitting.                                                                                                     So I wrote back to Queen’s lawyers informing them of our position, a letter that left no doubt I knew the law better than they did. At this point someone at their law office must have been assigned to scan the book with a fine tooth comb to check whether we had inadvertently breached their copyright in some small way. A week or two went by before we received a reply, this one stating that on one page (out of 96), in the bottom left hand corner, there was a photograph in which someone was sporting a backstage pass that incorporated Queen’s copyrighted logo, so tiny in fact that it was barely visible to the naked eye. Still, legally, it breached their copyright. Gotcha, or so they thought.                         Without admitting anything – the first rule in legal disputes – I wrote back and offered them £50 for what anyone in their right minds would consider the most minor of infringements. Realising that if they pursued this miniscule breach through legal channels they would be laughed out of court, they wrote back demanding a 15% royalty, “Our normal royalty rate on merchandise,” they said. I wrote back along the lines of, “Since you have seen fit to decline our generous offer of £50, that offer is now reduced to £25.” We never heard back.

Perhaps I had asked for it by being cheeky but my final experience of Queen, that same year, was also unpleasant. I was at their Knebworth show in August which just happened to be Freddie Mercury’s last performance with the group.                                                                          I wasn't there to see Queen - heaven forbid - but because Omnibus Press had published a book on the Knebworth Festivals by Chrissie Lytton-Cobbold, the wife of the owner of the estate, and as a result we were granted permission to set up a stall on site to sell rock books, including hers of course, and also one on Big Country, one of the day’s support acts, a book that was approved by them.                                     This did not sit well with Queen’s merchandising company who objected to our stall, pointing out that they had the exclusive right to sell merchandise on the site, which meant everything bar food and drink. The upshot of a rather nasty exchange of views backstage was that we were permitted to sell only Chrissie’s book and had to remove the rest of our stock from display. They offered to sell the Big Country book, as they were already selling that group’s merchandise alongside Queen’s.                     As the day went on I couldn’t help but notice the massive business Queen’s merchandising stands were doing, raking in heaps of cash hand over fist, mostly for Queen-branded clothing. At the end of the day they returned almost all the Big Country books to us and handed over a tiny sum of money, about £30 as I recall, which represented 15% of their revenues from those they did sell. They retained 85% which was what they retained on Queen merchandise. I didn’t argue. It was me against five big blokes.                                                                                              Would it really have harmed their vast takings if we’d been allowed to sell our books? Of course not. It was greed. That nasty taste that somehow never went away just got nastier. 

In one respect we had the last word. After poor old Freddie left us in 1991 an updated edition of our Visual Documentary book went on to sell over 50,000 copies in six months. Then again maybe not. A few years ago Roger Taylor, who struck me as a reasonable sort of bloke when I happened to spend an evening drinking with him and my pal Don Powell, bought Puttenham Priory, not that far from where I now live in Surrey. Grade II listed, it is set in 48 acres and has nine bedrooms, six bathrooms and a garage for eight cars and god only knows what else. Someone told he paid £8 million for it. That’s about 22 times more than I paid for my modest gaff.                                                                                                  And I thought was lucky. 



2.10.20

READY STEADY GO! by Andy Neill, Slight Return


In a departure from my usual habit I am posting on my blog today an e-mail I received about Andy Neill’s recent Ready Steady Go! book. The writer is our mutual friend Ed Hanel, a fellow Who archivist and collector with whom I have been friendly since we first met in 1981. At that time Ed and his family lived in north London where he and his wife Lynne worked for the US military. Now retired and living in Hawaii, Ed worked all his life as an attorney for the US Navy which just goes to show that Who fans come from all walks of life.                    
    About 25 years ago he and Lynne were stationed in San Francisco Bay, occupying a large house on Yerba Buena Island which during WW2 was used by the Navy top brass overseeing operations in the Pacific. We – myself, Mrs C & two kids – visited the Hanels there in 1996 and you can imagine how delighted I was to note that the room in which the admirals deliberated over how best to neutralise the Japanese war offensive was now a Who museum, housing Ed’s vast collection of Who memorabilia. I even told Pete T who was also delighted.
    Anyway, because Americans never got to see RSG! I found Ed’s pronouncements particularly noteworthy. Here they are: 


“Anything published by Andy Neill will be thoroughly researched, carefully organized, and extremely well written. Ready Steady Go! (RSG!) is his latest effort and the result is, as expected, brilliant. He describes the book as a “labour of love”, and probably that is the most accurate description. But that alone wouldn’t merit a five-star review. Already out in the UK, comments there wax poetic about the detail and scope of Andy’s history of a TV show that few Americans ever saw. 
“Why should the book merit high regard here in the states? Come and gone by the end of 1966, the RSG! TV show assumed a shadowy status for American teenagers. We were told that it was a show where The Who became stars. It had a glamorous emcee named Cathy McGowan. It was filled with English bands who started the British invasion in early 1964. (The two terms, British and English, meant the same thing, right?) That was about all we knew. Those of us listening to teenage music on American AM stations at the time were puzzled by British band references to Radio Luxembourg. Surely British radio stations and TV played British rock and roll all day long. Why would anyone in London have to listen to a foreign radio station?
      “Andy’s book goes a long way toward explaining the entire cultural background in the UK that took American music, tried to copy it, created a “new” exciting sound, and shoved it down deep into our American hearts and minds. All of this done in a nation still locked into the after-shock of World War II and a class system not quite ready to give up its hold on the general population. This is a book for anyone interested in sixties music and culture, and who wants a good broad overview of what was happening in London ’63-’66. 
“It is not a quick read. Physically, the size and nearly six-pound weight of the book call for a table or counter-top where the book can be left open so that the reader can tackle it at leisure. RSG! deserves a careful and thoughtful read. Treat it like a good Scottish malt whiskey – neat and in small doses. As is always the case when reading Andy Neill’s books, I am looking forward to wherever he takes us next.”

Thanks Ed. 

30.9.20

KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! ON WOOD: A LIFE IN SOUL by Eddie Floyd with Tony Fletcher.


Eddie Floyd isn’t a household name like Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding, his private life was never as lively as Marvin Gaye or James Brown, and it’s probably due to his genial, unflappable and rather cautious nature that he’s still with us, having turned 83 in June. All of which might suggest that this autobiography – inevitably titled after his best-known song – could be a dreary affair but his extraordinary memory for songs, names and dates makes Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood: A Life In Soul a valuable historical record of his life and times, especially the period when he was associated with Memphis-based Stax Records in the mid to late sixties.                                                                                                     Although the book is advertised as Eddie Floyd’s autobiography, it has been ghost written by my friend Tony Fletcher whose interest in sixties soul, dormant during the period he wrote books about white bands, seems to have been reignited by his 2017 biography of Wilson Pickett. Tony has now written ten books, including one novel, but this is his first shot at ghost-writing, a discipline that requires a writer not just to step into the shoes of their subject but to interpret their voice as well. 
        The task of the ghost writer is helped enormously if there’s a shared heritage, a similar cultural background, but that’s certainly not the case here. Eddie Floyd was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1937, and Tony was born in Beverley, in East Yorkshire, in 1964. Beyond the fact that English is their shared first language, their circumstances couldn’t be much more diverse, a factor that adds considerably to what Tony has achieved as he gets inside Eddie’s head to translate his life in the correct vernacular and thereby convey his ‘Steady Eddie’ character to the reader. 
        Tony first met Floyd in 2015 while he was researching his Pickett book. Without hesitation he agreed to be interviewed and they met at Montgomery’s smartest hotel. “Eddie, his silver hair the only sign of old age on a honed body that men half his age would cover, was dressed to the nines, sporting a stylish two-tone suit as if ready to step on stage at a moment’s notice,” writes Tony. “I came away under no illusions that I had just spent several hours with the living embodiment of the Soul Man.” Indeed, the encounter so impressed Tony that after the Pickett book was published he contacted Floyd again to suggest he write his own book with Tony’s help. This is the result. 
        That Eddie Floyd is a gracious and amiable old soul is easily detectable from its pages and while you can’t help but admire this likeable aristocrat of the soul trade, in some respects the book resembles one of those old fashioned showbusiness memoirs wherein everybody is great and any unpleasantness brushed beneath the carpet. Although he raises an eyebrow or two at the behaviour of his rival Pickett, Eddie is too nice a guy to bear any grudges. Grit is kept to a minimum. 
        Eddie is certainly dismayed by the financial woes that befell Stax after it became clear that its owners had inadvertently squandered valuable assets but he doesn’t point the finger in an angry manner, even though his own fortunes were certainly buffeted by the label’s misadventures. Most everyone he meets in his career is wonderful, talented and kind-hearted, and only rarely is a song or record criticised. And while the many musicians with whom he works are exhaustively listed and given due credit for their work, there is a distinct lack of information about his personal life, which involves more than one wife and plenty of children. We are told that Eddie remains on good terms with his female partners, but of his domestic arrangements we remain ignorant, fleeting references to his family serving to whet an appetite fulfilled only by reference late in the book to a son, Anthony, also a musician, with whom he collaborates.
        Similarly, Eddie avoids much mention of racial discrimination or politics. I came away from the book with the impression that he simply doesn’t want to rock the boat on such matters, that whatever he thinks is better left unsaid and, in any case, no good can come of it by venting his spleen about what he probably believes he is powerless to change. He’s a musician not a senator, full stop. 
        On the plus side, the detail is extraordinary. Lovers of Stax music – Motown’s little but cooler brother in my book – will revel in the inside information about what went on in the converted movie theatre at 926 E McLemore Avenue in Memphis. The process of song writing is lucidly explained, with copious examples, the point well made that although Eddie is perhaps best known as a soul singer it’s his song writing skills of which he is most proud. 
        Key episodes in Eddie’s life receive the coverage you would expect. I defy anyone not to be charmed by Eddie’s warm recollections of his first visit, in 1967, to the UK and elsewhere in Europe where the reception rivalled a royal tour. “As far as that Stax/Volt tour of Europe went, it was perfect. Just perfect,” he writes. The death not long afterwards of Otis Redding is sadly recalled, not least because it indirectly gave rise to another of Eddie’s songs, ‘Big Bird’. 
        Many collaborators and admirers were interviewed for the book, among them Bruce Springsteen, Steve Cropper, William Bell, Alan Walden, Paul Young and Bill Wyman. As you would expect, Springsteen’s recollections of inviting Eddie on stage with E Street Band in 1976 are particularly erudite and heartfelt. Eddie was obviously overjoyed at the inclusion of ‘Raise Your Hand’ on his Live 1975-85 LP set in 1985.
        Eddie Floyd was never workshy. From his days with The Falcons, his fondly-remembered first singing group, to the awards shows he invariably shows up for today, he feels a duty always to do his best, for his audience and for his own gratification. If things sometimes don’t go according to plan he simply gets back up and starts over, cheerfully too. He’s level-headed and, when necessary, as tough as some of the boxers he so admires. Most folk he meets know he doesn’t go looking for a fight but it’s wise to avoid starting one with him. It’s left largely unsaid that the publishing revenues from ‘Knock On Wood’, and to a lesser extent ‘634 5789’ and ‘Raise Your Hand’, all songs of his that have been covered by a host of singers, have kept his bank account in credit all his life. 
        And he knows he’s been fortunate. “I have no regrets,” he writes in a feelgood closing chapter that summarises a life many would envy. Touch wood, or knock on it as Americans say, it’ll continue that way and he’ll live on for plenty more years. 





20.9.20

TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN² - Cat Stevens/Yusuf

The intriguing saga of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam has taken another twist with the release of this impeccable re-recording of Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ breakthrough album, long considered his peak achievement and a classic of the singer-songwriter genre. Though only marginally superior to Mona Bone Jakon, which preceded it, and Teaser & The Firecat, which followed, Tillerman includes such memorable titles as ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, more relevant than ever in the light of Extinction Rebellion; ‘Hard Headed Woman’, the first hint of Stevens’ discomfort with his calling; ‘Wild World’, which alerts the unwary to unseen perils; ‘On The Road To Find Out’, the first in a series of introspective songs that communicated Stevens’ endless search for something deeper in his life; and the peerless ‘Father And Son’, among the greatest musical reflections on the familial generation gap, and his most enduring song. 
So what’s different? Well, he’s found his hard headed woman and Mary’s dalliance with the parson is no longer a topic for discussion but these are minor modifications in the reimagined, 50th Anniversary edition of Tillerman, released last week and now credited on its spine jointly to Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Of far greater import is the improved 21st Century production, the deeper timbre of Stevens’ voice and some nifty rearrangements of its 11 songs, some more radical than others. 
The songs are sequenced in the same order as before and were re-recorded earlier this year at a studio near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. Paul Samwell-Smith reprised his production duties and it is pleasing to note that Yusuf was joined by acoustic guitarist Alun Davies, his long serving accompanist and musical partner. Alun’s friend Jim Cregan was brought in to add some electric guitar, various other musicians beef up the instrumentals to levels unheard on the original recording and many of those present add their voices to a choral landscape that occasionally reinforces the delicate ambience of songs hitherto sung by Stevens alone. 
Much of the charm of the original Tillerman – and Stevens’ albums from this period of his career generally – was Samwell Smith’s light touch, but to a certain extent this has been set aside in favour of a fuller production, which is no bad thing in the light of Stevens’ age – he turned 72 in July – and its natural impact on his vocal cords. That said, the enhancements come intermittently, as if those involved decided, perhaps wisely, not to overdo the innovation for fear of alienating traditionalists. Happily, the compromise at which they arrived meets all expectations. 
Above all, though, the album retains its sadness. No matter how briskly Stevens and Davies strummed their guitars, nothing could mask the melancholy in Stevens’ voice nor the despondency in lyrics that laid bare a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin. This would not be resolved until Stevens, once Steven Demetri Georgiou now simply Yusuf, discovered the Islamic faith in late 1977. Thereafter he connected only intermittently with the secular world, though in recent years he seems to have mellowed in this regard, finding a middle ground amidst the demands of his religion and the material world in which the commercial music industry subsists. 
Back in the present, on the new version of Tillerman the lengthy intro to ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, the opening song, is retained, updated with an attractive, breathy electronic boost to the backing vocal, and Yusuf’s richer voice adds gravity to a song that was prescient 50 years ago. (Who was to know that this re-recording of Stevens’ lament for the natural world would be released a few days after Sir David Attenborough’s most recent televised wildlife documentary Extinction: The Facts, a chilling reminder of how certain species and, indeed, our very planet are threatened by overdevelopment?) At the 2.50 mark – ‘You’ve cracked the sky’ – the song breaks out from its familiar mellow setting and Yusuf’s anger resonates above drums that pound, at least by his standards, and a choral backdrop that adds dramatic counterpoint before the arrangement slips back into the same gentle fade from which it began. 
Aside from the subtle change in the lyric, ‘Hard Headed Woman’ lacks the edgy abruptness of the original and the orchestral interlude is replaced by a smoother texture and a soft electric guitar, but the modification here pales into insignificance compared to ‘Wild World’ which follows. Once a slightly reggae-tuned hit for Jimmy Cliff, ‘Wild World’ is given a Latin American makeover with a Gallic touch, an accordion deep in the mix over which Yusuf croons deeply. A lovely clarinet solo rides above the swing tempo, taking the song home in a lengthy, dreamy closing outro.
Lisa is still as sad as ever, and even a Spanish guitar, beautifully played by Eric Appapoulay, cannot ease her misery. As in the original, the song’s foundation is the tinkly piano figure, and although plucked nylon strings dominate a solo hitherto reliant on bowed strings, the arrangement is not that much different from the 1970 ‘Sad Lisa’. Even more so than ‘Wild World’, ‘Miles From Nowhere’ explodes after its quiet start, rocking out with electric guitars leading the charge as Yusuf celebrates his freedom, thereafter undulating between merriment and reflection. 
Aside from an orchestral opening reminiscent of the Beatles Mystery Tour period, ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ is not that far removed from the original recording, but ‘Longer Boats’ is more full-throated, the second verse – ‘I don’t want no God on my lawn’ – replaced with lines about asteroid dwellers looking down on us, while the contentious verse about Mary and the parson is traded for a prayer for unity and peace delivered by a rapper identified in the accompanying booklet as Brother Eli. 
‘Into White’ always sounded to me like something Edward Lear might have written to entertain children. Its gentility is retained in the least transformed song on the album. In another sharp contrast, however, ‘On The Road To Find Out’ has morphed into a dirty blues, not something I ever imagined writing in relation to Yusuf. Blue notes, courtesy of Appapoulay on electric guitar, abound in Stevens’ most overt quest song, the plodding beat on slackened drums and insistent riff hinting at the sub-Sahara and nothing like the original.
Which brings us to ‘Father And Son’ in which Yusuf duets with himself, by which I mean that while the voice of the father is newly recorded, the voice of the son is taken from a historical live recording at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, thus neatly realising the song’s original script. Based around the familiar theme of leaving home to discover life for oneself; sympathy balancing equally between parental caution and youthful impatience. Thankfully, the arrangement is unchanged, the instrumental interlude serene though towards the end the old and young voices no longer blend into lyrical counterpoint. Nevertheless, the son’s lines retain the desperate frustration of the original, a song of unusual passion and originality. 
Finally, the slight hesitancy evident in ‘Tea For Tillerman’ itself, the minute-long coda, has vanished in favour of a more confident piano part, played and sung by Yusuf in his more sonorous intonation. 
In closing I should mention that charming stop-frame animated videos have been produced to illustrate ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and ‘Father And Son’, and a third film accompanies the bluesy ‘On The Road To Find Out’. All can be found on catstevens.com.



17.9.20

KNOCK ON WOOD WITH THE BLACK SHEEP

 

I have just started to read Knock On Wood, Eddie Floyd’s autobiography which is co-authored by my friend Tony Fletcher. I’ll probably review it properly here next week but its title brings back a memory I feel like sharing. 
It is August of 1968 and I am living at home in Skipton in Yorkshire. Because their bass player is indisposed I have been asked to take his place in The Black Sheep, thus fulfilling a private ambition of some significance to me. By common consent The Black Sheep are Skipton’s best band, a six-piece that specialises in soul and R&B with a few Stones songs like ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ thrown in for good measure. Their speciality is a note-for-note reproduction of Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band’s Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt Live! LP, Piccadilly NPL 38026, a record I still own, and a slew of Stax and Atlantic hits like ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘In The Midnight Hour’. 


The occasion makes it all the more momentous. The gig is the joint 21st birthday party of two acquaintances of mine, John Spencer, who became a noted rugby union player, and John Mewies, who, like his father before him, has been our family solicitor for as long as I can remember. A marquee has been hired which sits in the garden of the Mewies home in the lane opposite the pitches of Upper Wharfedale RUFC on the outskirts of Grassington, just up the road from Skipton. Furthermore, many of my friends will be there, among them several girls I would like to impress.
First of all, though, I need to learn The Black Sheep’s repertoire and to this end I spend the afternoon of the gig in the company of Richard Preston, esteemed not only as the best guitarist in Skipton but the owner of the best guitar in town, an orange Gretsch Tennessean, which he brings over to our house on the afternoon of the gig. 
Perhaps I should point out at this stage that none of this would have come about had I not recently been ousted from Sandra & The Montanas from Cross Hills, a five piece including our girl singer whose leanings are more on the pop side. My role as second guitarist is deemed redundant after they engage a bloke who owns not just an electric keyboard but a Vox PA system, with two impressively tall speaker columns. Far be it for me to suggest that he is hired on the strength of his gear but in a fit of indignation I exchange my red Futurama III guitar (and Watkins Copicat echo box – a bad mistake) for a Hofner Violin bass as played by Paul McCartney, albeit right-handed. I simply fancy a bass for a change and it only costs £35. The news that I now own this bass communicates itself to the members of The Black Sheep, all of whom I know anyway because they drink in the same Skipton pub as me, The New Ship, below. 


For two hours Richard and I make our way through The Black Sheep’s set list, me trying to pick up simple bass parts from him, he suggesting lines and telling me which key to play them in. I make a few notes on a bit of paper I’ll stick to the edge of the bass, just like Paul used to do. When we get to ‘Knock On Wood’ I love that ascending intro and the bass line that reaches up an octave, a bit like a slowed down version of the riff from Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’ which The Beatles nicked for ‘I Feel Fine’. The bass line to ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ is a bit like the first bit of the riff to ‘Twist And Shout’, which they also play (in C) and a few others we try out aren’t too difficult to pick up. The key thing, Richard tells me, is to keep the tempo. Watch the drummer, he says. Watch what chord I’m playing. If you’ve forgotten the riff, just play a note that corresponds with my chord in time to the bass drum. 
The Black Sheep is a six-piece but I can’t remember all their names. John Willie, whose dad was a haulier, is the singer; Kevin is on trumpet, Richard on guitar, me on bass (that night), with a keyboard player and drummer whose names escape me. They are massively popular in the Dales and travel around in an old hearse. It is an honour to be asked to play with them. 

(CC, left, with my violin bass, albeit not with the Black Sheep)

Well, I don’t disgrace myself. The Black Sheep’s old bass player has left behind his 50 watt Selmer bass amp and separate speaker which is not much smaller than a coffin, and when I plug in my Macca bass and tune up it sounds fine. Most of the partygoers already know The Black Sheep as they play regularly at the rugby club opposite tonight’s gig, and everyone is in the mood for a good time and unlikely to notice if their bass player drops the odd note. Then again, they might be surprised to see it is me toting that violin bass in the first place. Many of them know me and if they don’t know I can play guitar they do now. 
The Black Sheep have recently added ‘Baby Come Back’ to their list and the riff to that is dead easy – only three notes – as is another favourite, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ which goes on for ages with me thumping on the three notes across the fifth fret, so easy I manage to look up at the dancers, move around a bit and look like I’ve been playing bass for years. ‘Knock On Wood’ is slightly harder but when I get into the groove, leaping up to that octave and edging down again repeatedly, my eyes on the drummer, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.
We do two sets, closing the second on an encore of ‘Twist And Shout’ which I can play with one arm behind my back. Afterwards, drinking a beer and basking in the glow of my achievement – I’ve played in the bloody Black Sheep – my satisfaction is as if I’d snogged the prettiest girl at the party. I did, too, but not that night.  
And now I’ll get back to reading Eddie Floyd’s book. 


10.9.20

READY STEADY GO! – THE WEEKEND STARTS HERE by Andy Neill




In March I previewed my friend Andy Neill’s upcoming book about Ready Steady Go!, the UK TV show broadcast between August 1963 and December 1966, that remains the benchmark by which TV rock and pop is judged. This was based on the manuscript, which Andy had asked me to read, but it no way prepared me for the real thing, the actual book, which arrived in the mail yesterday.

         Well, it’s “smashing” as Cathy McGowan would have told Mick or Brian as the Stones geared up to play their latest single on the RSG! set, or John and Paul as they larked around and made funny faces to camera, or Pete and Keith as she admired their mod gear. Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here – The Definitive Story Of the Show That Changed Pop TV – to give it its full title – belongs in that category of Rolls Royce rock books reserved for those Mark Lewisohn writes about The Beatles or other labours of love by music writers who’ve spent years on a project, in Andy’s case a mere 17, on and off.

         Which is to say that it’s big (about 12.5 inches square) and weighty (6 lbs), with about 70,000 words and hundreds of pictures spread over 268 high-end art paper pages. There are forewords by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Vicki Wickham, the production pair who more than anyone else brought RSG! to your screens, and contributions from Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies and many more. (The only notable absentee among those newly interviewed is McGowan herself, now a grandmother, who “resolutely refuses any attempt to drag her back into her past”.) The price on the cover is £39.99 but Amazon charge £28.67.

         Although it’s a chronological account, beginning in pre-RSG! days and closing with a review of what happened next to its staff and presenters, the chapters are cunningly arranged backwards – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – and included within them are spreads dealing with appearances by RSG!’s most favoured acts and other aspects of the show like Mod fashion, art and excursions onto the Continent. At the back you’ll find an episode guide with details of who appeared on all 178 programmes, the RSG! spin-off Ready Steady Win and even audience ratings. The text lovingly chronicles its tentative beginnings, its seat-of-the-pants production style, its impeccable musical values and, most of all, its absolute refusal ever to abide by the traditional rules of shows televised before live audiences.

         The production style is best summed up by Jagger. “RSG! wasn’t safe,” he says. “It took risks, and waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times.” Watching it, you often got the feeling the producers were cramming as much as they could into their miserly half hour slot, and that’s the same feeling I get from the book. Andy Neill and his designer Phil Smee have crammed as much as they can into it, from the RSG! memorabilia on the front and back end papers to a wealth of previously unseen (or seldom seen) shots from the set inside, Beatles and Stones galore, Dusty waiting for her cue and Cathy interviewing the stars in her customarily effusive style. 

         It’s in the detail where much of the magic lies. To cite just two examples, in the Episode Guide for show number 122 we are informed that Keith Moon was banned from compering RSG! because of something he ‘unintentionally’ said to Cathy  oh my! – while in the guide to show 89, which featured amongst others The Everly Brothers, we learn from Manfred Mann’s Tom McGuinness that Don and Phil stayed behind after rehearsals, playing their acoustic guitars to no one in particular. “They started singing old country and folk songs, staring into each other’s faces to get those harmonies spot on. They seemed unaware that the studio was slowly filling up with the other artists, cameramen and technicians. When the song ended there was silence from the growing crowd. Eventually, when it was evident they had finished, the place erupted with cheering. Don and Phil looked around as if they’d only just noticed us, and smiled. It was spine tingling to hear them singing just for themselves.”

         That’s just two tiny, almost microscopic details in this spectacular book about the show with the unforgettable catchphrase ‘The Weekend Starts Here’. That was the cue for every pop fan in the land to switch on the family TV early Friday evening and shoo their mums and dads out of the room for half an hour while this most exciting and trend-setting of pop shows was broadcast. This book does it justice in spades.

         Finally, nice but not quite as impressive, there’s a limited edition box set of 10 7” singles released as a companion to the book, featuring songs by Manfred Mann, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, The Walker Brothers, The Supremes, Donovan, Cilla Black and The Searchers. Naturally it kicks off with the Manfred’s ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and the set include a 24-page booklet written by Andy.


The RSG! Singles Box


31.8.20

SYLVIE SIMMONS – Blue On Blue


Fifty years ago this past weekend on the Isle of Wight a crowd variously estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000 were entertained by a 38-year-old ukulele player from New York called Herbert Khaury. A tall man with long straggly hair and a penchant for loud jackets and kipper ties, his professional name was Tiny Tim and his repertoire consisted largely of show tunes from the early 20th Century, most especially ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’, his only hit, which he sang in a piercing falsetto voice.
         Preceded on stage by Joni Mitchell and followed by Miles Davis, Tiny Tim’s fleeting popularity is one of those inexplicable phenomena that erupts every so often in the world of music, but I‘ll wager next month’s milk bill that his appearance at the 1970 IOW Festival did little for the sale of ukuleles, those four-stringed mini guitars beloved of Elvis in Blue Hawaii and the Georges Formby and Harrison. I own one myself and taught myself to play a few chords on it, then promptly forgot them.
         I now know that I was wrong to consign my ukulele to the wilderness beneath the bed. In the right hands it is a soft and seductive instrument, capable of expressing a wealth of tender emotions in a light, airy manner, easily a match for nylon-stringed acoustic guitars. The right hands that concern me today belong to Sylvie Simmons, perhaps best known as an accomplished music writer, a regular contributor to Mojo magazine and Leonard Cohen’s finest biographer. Gradually, however, Sylvie is becoming as well known for her music and ukulele playing, for her second album – a follow up to her 2014 début Sylvie – is garnering rave reviews everywhere I look.
         Blue On Blue, much delayed following an accident left Sylvie temporarily without the use of her left hand, is a quiet, reflective work, its songs slightly mannered in a way that suggests she’s taken a dash of Cohen’s velvety poetic traits and blended them with her own take on the mysteries of soured love, all stirred into a wafting wash of melancholia that drifts lightly from track to track and gives the record a pleasing consistency. Top flight production, by Howe Gelb, with whom Sylvie duets on one song, guarantees absolute clarity, enhanced by an absence of drums, minimal bass and prudent restraint.
         Like her softly strummed uke, Sylvie’s voice is a gentle instrument, her slight huskiness adding depth to the 11 songs. The first single, ‘Sweet California’, is a homage to her adopted home delivered with a touch of homesickness – Sylvie is British transported to the Bay Area – which prompted her to tell an interviewer: “There’s this thing about coming home to California, realising, ‘Yeah, it’s home.’ In a way, I was coming home from the accident.” Another song chosen for a single, ‘The Things They Don’t Tell You About Girls’, is a wry observation on female loquaciousness that suggests inflexibility is more a male than female trait, for which Sylvie has commissioned an amusingly retro video that can be found on YouTube.

(A portrait of the artist, by her friend Andy Lesco)
         
For the most part, though, Sylvie chronicles affairs of the heart that left her, if not bereft, then at least hoping for something better over the next horizon. In ‘Not In Love’ she’s left with her romantic dreams; in ‘Carey’s Song’ – on which Gelb plays a delicate, tinkling piano – she is fearlessly striking out on her own; and in ‘Creation Day’, on which I detected a hint of Gillian Welch at her most serene, she still wants him whose photograph she keeps. ‘Waiting For The Shadows To Fall’, another tearjerker, is effortlessly lovely, taken at a stately pace, gentler than anything else here, but there’s a sense of hope amidst the wreckage of her abandoned relationship. “On the broken pieces of my heart… try to make a new start,” she sings, a shade optimistically perhaps. By the time we reach ‘Stay Awhile’, an undisguised plea, I wanted to give her a great big hug.
         The closing song, ‘1,000 Years Before I Met You’, the duet with Gelb, shifts the tempo – if not the sentiments – towards country and western in a song quite unlike anything else on Blue On Blue. “Help me say goodbye to these blues,” sings Sylvie in the manner of those C&W ladies who believed that the higher their backcombed hair, the closer they were to God. Such is the Nashville mood, I was reminded of Merle HaggardTonight The Bottle Let Me Down’. 
         The journey from music writer to musician is littered with the kind of broken dreams that Sylvie Simmons sings about but in Blue On Blue she has produced a gem of a record, a tribute to the ukulele’s potential that Tiny Tim could never have imagined.

25.8.20

ROD & RON: Never A Dull Moment

(Picture by Barrie Wentzell)

It would have been 46 years ago this week when I last had meaningful conversations with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Both were in New York together but separately, Rod touting his forthcoming LP Smiler and Ron his first solo outing I’ve Got My Own Album To Do.
         In a seemingly pointless spirit of competition, both record companies – Mercury for Rod and Warners for Ron – hosted ‘invitation only’ lunches in posh restaurants for their artists on the same day, thus creating a dilemma for me. Lunch with Rod or lunch with Ron? I opted for Ron, solely because I had an interview scheduled with Rod the next day and needed to write something about Ron too.
         Honest Ron was a great luncheon companion, hilariously indiscreet about the rivalry between him and his Faces pal with a similar haircut. There weren’t many of us around the table and he kept us all entertained with his banter, a bit of cheek, a bit risqué, a bit cor-blimey guv. The idea was that he was promoting his solo LP but I don't recall him saying much about it.


         Mick Taylor had yet to leave the Stones so the issue of his replacement wasn’t on the table, but like pretty much everyone else observing the trajectory of the Faces I wasn’t surprised by the vagueness with which he spoke around the subject of their future. “Don’t ask me?” he said. Which rather begged the question, well who do I ask? Rod didn’t seem to know either.
         Ron was more affable, a good deal friendlier than Rod, and I turned what he had to say into a few paragraphs in my weekly New York news column. Rod, on the other hand, required something more substantial.
         When I arrived in his expansive hotel room – The President’s Suite no less – the following day it seemed to me as if he was on the defensive. “What do you wanna know?” he demanded when I settled down and switched on my cassette recorder. I think he sensed that the tide was turning against him, that the unanimous acclaim he’d enjoyed during that glorious run of solo LPs, beginning in 1969 with An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down up to 1972’s Never A Dull Moment, might be drawing to a close. Perhaps in his heart of hearts he knew that Smiler wasn’t in the same league.  
         Rod’s attitude towards the press had changed. In the past he’d been chatty, outgoing, but now he was behaving as if he expected the interview to turn into an argument. Maybe he didn’t trust us writers any longer. Still, I managed to scratch together a 1,500 word piece for the following week’s Melody Maker, dated August 31. It was headlined ‘I Dream Of A Solo Concert’, a dream that would become reality before long. Here it is:

“ANYTHING I say is not meant to be a blot on anyone’s character... or trousers.”
         Rod Stewart, Old Spikey himself, settled into position on the double bed in the St Regis Hotel President’s Suite, running his thin fingers through his hair and occasionally admiring his Spanish tan in one of the two mirrors that the hotel provides for Presidents and others whose bank balance enables them to afford such luxury.
         Rod, whose reputation for being a trifle outspoken is widely known, prefaced this interview with the above remark. He’s got into bother before through opening up a little too loosely on subjects he feels strongly about. A rebel who can’t be gagged, but who often regrets what he’s said earlier.
         The real reason for Rod’s decision to speak out again is the release of his fifth solo album (or sixth if you count Sing It Again). It’ll be out next month, probably September 20, and the title is Smiler.
         The lengthy delays that have preceded its release are due mainly to litigation regarding his contract with Mercury Records, a subject which he’s loth to discuss at present.
         Either way, the delays have rattled him considerably.
As usual it’s an album of Rod’s own compositions with Ronnie Wood, personal favourites from days gone by and a few contributions from friends. This time around, the friends include Elton John and Paul McCartney.
         Rod is in America is complete the mastering of the record, and here’s a rundown on the, as yet unheard, tracks.
         Side one opens with ‘Sweet Little Rock And Roller’, the Chuck Berry song, followed by ‘Lochinvar’, a short linker, ‘Farewell’, a Stewart/Quittenton song, ‘Sailor’, a Stewart/ Wood song, ‘Bring It On Home’, the old Sam Cooke tune and ‘Let Me Be Your Car’, written for Rod by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. This song was to have been on Elton’s  Yellow Brick Road.
         Side too opens with the Goffin/King song ‘Natural Man’, followed by ‘Dixie Toot’, a Stewart/Wood tune, ‘Hard Road’, an instrumental by Quittenton of ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face’ from My Fair Lady, ‘Girl From The North Country’, the Dylan song, and closes with ‘Mine For Me’, written for Rod by Paul McCartney.
         The sleeve is a red tartan pattern and the inside depicts all those involved in the production – about 50 people. There’s a key to say who they all are.


         “It’s been finished for five months,” growled Rod, rolling over on the enormous bed and ordering tea with sugar. “Plus the fact that I’m a little bit slow. The album didn’t take all that long to record, it was just the time taken in getting everyone together.
         “For six months there’s been a problem with the record companies about who was releasing it, but it’s all been sorted out now. It comes out in England on September 20, thank goodness.
         “Yeah, I’m happy with it. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, It’d have been scrapped by now. Made it all outside the country for a change... Frankfurt, Brussels, everywhere. It seems donkey’s years ago since I started, but it must have been just before last Christmas. I made 17 tracks altogether and picked out the best ones.
         “There’s a couple of numbers that I’ve done that I’ve always wanted to sing. ‘Natural Man’ is one and ‘Bring It On Home’ is another. Paul McCartney came along to sing his number with me – not a bad singer either, that Paul.
         “He says he wrote it specially for me but I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like a cast-off. He mentioned something about it being for Red Rose Speedway, but I don’t care. It’s a fucking good track either way. Elton’s done one for me too. Bernie said it was for me ‘cos it was a good rock‘n’roll number and the only person who could sing it properly was me.
         “I know for a fact that Elton wanted to record that one himself ‘cos he kept saying if I didn’t want to do it, he’d do it himself. He plays the Joanna and sings it with me.”
         Rod walked towards the window and gazed over Central Park. “Nice ‘ere in New York innit,” he said. “I’m ‘ere until Friday. It’s a sort of promotional visit, ‘cos I ain’t done any press for ages. When I’m touring I like to look after my voice and talk as little as possible. Then I’m off to LA to finish mastering the album and I’m making a little documentary film there with Russell Harty.”
         Time, I thought, to dig a little deeper. Is work progressing on another Faces album?
         “No, no way. I don’t know whether we’re gonna do another Faces album or not. I don’t know what the position is there. We haven’t talked about it at all.
         “Kenney Jones has gone off and made a single of his own. He’s a good little singer, y’know, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Faces recordings. I know we’re staying together as a band and that’s all that counts as far as I am concerned.
         “Ronnie’s got his own solo album and it wouldn’t be any big hardship if we just got together to play each other’s stuff. As long as we stay together as a band, we’re OK. There’s no backbiting going on. We still get along with each other very well.
         “I’d say I put more work into the Faces’ albums than I do with my own. They’ve always been a bigger headache. Putting this latest album together was a piece of cake compared to a Faces’ album. It’s the first time I’ve ever recorded more tracks than I wanted.
         “Actually it’s more of a singing album than anything else. I felt it was about time I called the tune and sang what I wanted to sing, even though maybe some people might not like them as much.”
         There are no immediate plans for the Faces to tour America, even though they’ll be appearing in Europe soon. Rod likes playing England better than anywhere else, but right now he’s uncertain about the Faces’ popularity in America.
         “Two years ago we were Jack the Lads over here, but I don’t know how strong we are now. We’ll have to see how my album and Woody’s album do first. Everybody tells me fans are fickle, but I don’t think so – not for the brand of music we make anyway. We start a British tour on November 5, and that I really am looking forward to.”
         Was there any chance of Rod following in the footsteps of other rock stars and leaving Britain because of the tax situation?
         “Everybody’s talking about it, but nobody’s actually doing it yet,” he said. “I think they ought to, though. The Government thinks they’ll tax us bastards right up to the hilt because we won’t leave, but that’s wrong because I will if I want to. It’s so bloody unfair.
         “They’re thinking of a wealth tax now and that’s bloody criminal. That’s like, for a young man, paying your death duties before you die. What with a 90 per cent tax ceiling, it’s just not worth living in England any more.
         “I’m all for paying taxes. There’s nothing wrong in that. I’ll pay my dues, but I’ve got one shot at the big ball for all my life. I can’t do anything else but sing and maybe play a bit of football.”
         Conversation switched to the current huge package tours that have been travelling around America recently, the come-back of Dylan, CSN&Y and Clapton.
         “I’ve never thought of Dylan making a comeback. I think it’s detrimental to say they’re making a comeback. Out of the three I would say Clapton was the only one making a real comeback ‘cos he did have a lay off and wasn’t very well for a few years.
         “Dylan’s music has matured and people have matured with him. He hasn’t dropped out anywhere along the line and you can’t expect the guy to be writing songs now like he was when he was in Greenwich Village, can you? I always think comebacks are for really old geezers.”
         Did Rod miss Ronnie Lane’s presence in the Faces?
         “I really missed him at the outset but I don’t any more. He’s found what he wanted and that’s peace of mind and not going through the same old routine.
         “I don’t think it is a routine, though. I enjoy it, coming here and travelling there but Ronnie got fed up with it. It changed his lifestyle so he decided he wanted to change his band.”
         Which promoted me to ask about a change for Rod. “I dream about a solo concert of my own someday. There’s gotta be a chance of it happening with all the people that appear on my albums. I’ve asked them and they all say I ought to do it someday. Mmmmm, lovely acoustic guitars behind me.”
         Rod’s eyes glistened at the thought. “I’ll get round to it. It’s just a question of time. The longer I wait the better it’s going to be when I do it anyway.”